It’s not till the airport train pulls into Central Hong Kong Station that the massive wave of humanity becomes noticeable. It’s my first venture to Hong Kong, the gateway to China and the most Western influenced tentacle of the worlds new super power. It’s teeming with people and they all appear to have somewhere to go, sadly I think much of it is shopping. The pedestrian tunnel feeds a million black-haired locals from the main station to the local trains revealing just how little power you have once you are in such a throng of people. The fact that there is now a new phenomena called “reading or texting as you walk” means you can often be caught behind someone wandering like an aimless drunk their screen illuminating and warning of their lack of orientation. Pull over walking txter…….no wifi for 24 hours, now on your way. If I threw in a small fine I would be rich by lunchtime.
Old school playing a game against a real live person.
We drop off our bags and head back out into the street. What to eat ? Stupid really its Hong Kong, it’s going to be dumplings every time. We start in a busy nondescript place full of its own atmosphere, a mix of steam from the food and spent oxygen from the overcrowded room. It’s frantic but exciting and the food delicious. Actually its delicious up until the last two courses which I’m sure are delicacies to someone, just not me, coagulated grit in a sack and soft gelatinous knuckles of some soon to be extinct mammal. Sally and I waddle out like two overfilled dumplings and go and lay down.
The sterile environment of a dumpling kitchen. more Hong Kong than mainland China.
Hong Kong is overcast but warm, we have yet to see a clear glimpse of Victoria Peak but finally wake to sunshine on Sunday morning. The bustling streets are remarkably quiet and we make our way by dinky trolley car towards the Peak tram and a queue of hundreds. Our shoulders slump when we see a sign signalling that the wait will be two and a half hours. Thankfully an hour later we are riding the squeaky but quaint timber tram to the top amongst the first vegetation I have seen since arriving.
Sally on the Victoria Peak tram.
A hawk or eagle hovers, at first I guess it to be an Asian child’s kite. It’s looking for something that’s alive and not from McDonald’s. The top of Victoria Peak is a shopping mall but I shouldn’t be surprised. We take in the view all courtesy of concrete and a million slaves and then bus it down on narrow, tight roads to Central station and a short walk to the Star ferry terminal.
The famous Star ferries plying the waters between Hong Kong and mainland China.
The streets are now groaning with workers savouring their one day off. Hundreds of Filipino maids sit barefoot playing cards and gossiping about their bosses. We board the ferry and for a minute I am on Sydney harbour, the crew with the same world-weary look and nonchalant movements. The passengers seem to be enjoying the novelty of commuting by sea. We can’t escape the masses though and look in shock at the crowds squeezing onto every form of transport imaginable and their total acceptance of no personal space.
Each evening we’ve caught up with Trevor and Jan exchanging stories of sights seen, sights better unseen and the simply unusual that comes with such a massive volume of humanity. Stories told, final drinks drunk we head back to our Western hotels and hide from the incessant hustle and bustle till our energy levels have risen and we can face the mob again.
Now the swish hotel is a memory, yesterday we moved across to Kowloon and the Intrepid tours hotel. Sadly I googled the hotel prior to leaving luxury to read ” hotel beds are HARD” I scanned another, the same reference. They were spot on, my camping mattress gives me a better sleep. All night I turned as another part of my body complained or ceased to have feeling. We met the rest of the group last night and its only going to be five of us and the guide for the first two weeks. Others will join us for the last nine days. I lay here this morning my body aching I’m simply looking for solace. Its not going to happen based on the guides words about our overnight train to Zhangjiajie. Let’s just say my body’s decided to protest and its first indicator is a twisted gait. Oh and the following night is camping out in the national park……great !
Our Intrepid tour through China
The observation of our time in Hong Kong would not be complete without a mention of the street protests against the Mainland China politicians. Whereas I thought it was a single protest there were a number of streets barricaded off with hundreds of camping tents and enthusiastic, free thinking students sitting about on their mobiles, chatting easily. In nearby streets there were police riot vans in rows completely encased in mesh, they look menacing. With a billion mainlanders living a very disciplined lifestyle, the Chinese government will hardly tolerate two lifestyles. Hopefully there is compromise but they’re not known for pandering, more the big stick. They later came in with yep, a big stick and cleared the streets with little fanfare.
Part of the Street protest in Hong Kong against the Chinese Government.
My view on the world population changed forever as we made our way from Hong Kong to the border, sixty aisles for locals to pass between the two countries. We were held like stock in chrome pens till ten minutes before the train left. Then five hundred of us scampered like refugees to our seats like it was the beginning of Armageddon. Everyone pushes and shoves their way in. Even when they can see that they have to wait they will be standing on your heels breathing down your neck with no sense of personal space, its alien to me and unpleasant. The Chinese appear to be quickly filling their own country and will soon need to start spilling out further…you heard it here first ! But then again it shouldn’t be news, they have been buying up Australia at a great rate the last ten years driving up prices with their new-found wealth. Tasmania is looking like the place to hide once I can sink those two daily ferries connecting it to the Australian mainland.
Tranquil walk in a Chinese National Park ?
We spent a couple of days in Zhangjiajie it contains China’s first National Park. Again it is hard not to have your impressions of the nature altered by the sheer numbers of people visiting. The tour notes said we would trek ? as Westerners we took this to mean sturdy footwear, packs loaded with food and water, layers of clothes and a mixture of isolation, exertion and tranquility. Our local female guide met us at the entrance dressed in a smart hounds-tooth jacket, clutching a half bottle of water and balancing out her outfit with a designer hand bag which definately didn’t contained a snake bite kit. We all looked ridiculous next to her in hiking gear which we’d dragged halfway around the world, brought specifically for the purpose. Off we headed, our little group and ten thousand other locals, yes ten thousand visitors walk this path each day. So great are the numbers that the raised walking path which at first appears to be wooden planks complete with branch-like handrails is entirely constructed of precast concrete to handle the human load.
Gina , our Chinese guide for four weeks.
A delightful gurgling river ran beside the path called ‘The Golden Weeping Stream’ now Australia has to do something about the naming of our rivers and mountains. No longer will I put up with a mountain range being called The You Yangs or a trickle to be called Dead Dog Creek, I want poetic licence.
Around us towering spires of craggy mountains soaring high into the air with trees wedged into fertile cracks all hanging in there with no fear of vertigo. The air too was sparkling clear, something I had not expected and we breathed in deep, all ten thousand of us.
A local gang of monkeys hid behind trees eager to strip food from the loose clutches of visitors from the big smoke. We walked on overtaking others who had stopped to photograph with their phones or check their makeup. At lunchtime we sat and worked our way through our packs of nuts, dried fruit and water. Around us others ate chicken, noodles and ice cream from an assortment of vendors. There has been a shanty town of shops every three to four hundred metres since entering the park. It’s tougher doing the Myer window at Christmas.
A short distance on we arrived at a lift, yes a lift. A gigantic outdoor lift which once you have weaved your way through the queue takes you quickly to the top of the mountain range, its either the lift or two thousand steps and the risk of a heart attack. I am still in shock at arriving at the lift and the photo still looks as if the lift was superimposed !
The steel and glass elevator clings to the mountainside
We walk the cliff tops for three hours before heading off to overnight in a small hilltop village and real isolation. It was freezing that night, beers at five, dinner at six and bed at seven shivering as the temperature dropped to zero and no heating. I slept with an electric blanket set on three and woke up thinking I was in a desert, panting tongue hanging dry on my pillow.
From Zhangjiajie a series of buses have dragged us to the old water town of Fenghuang. Our long haul bus dropped us in a dirty dark car park in a spot which was as grubby as the ferry towns of Brindesi or Calais and we stared in disbelief, you’re joking was our first comment. A short wild taxi drive later we were dragging our bags along a riverfront with old style China clinging to the banks, it couldn’t have been more different. The mood of the group changed immediately and we celebrated by chowing down and glugging on a few local beers. Upstairs to our rooms we peeked out into the night at the hustle and bustle, the neon lights illuminating the Chinese buildings we had seen as children in books.
I fell asleep to the thud of a street trader below, swinging a wooden mallet as he made a local sesame toffee, the aroma thick in the air. I woke to a rooster cry, then shrill human cries across the water and on closer inspection a flotilla of hardy elderly swimmers steadily making their way across the grey water with fat raindrops punching the surface. Our group spent most of the day shuffling between the alleyways of trinket shops and warding off the over enthusiastic shopkeepers. Hadn’t they heard that I purchase little whilst travelling?
Today’s three highlights were….watching a woman make Mcegg type muffins with some pancake mix, an egg some chives and pork mix in her cast iron muffins stove over a flame. The process was long-winded and the muffins turned about six times but the taste was enough to build a mega business on. The second was far simpler, I spotted a rubber duck and as I passed gave it a squeeze, a loud duck bleat escaped and then a nearby local rooster started up in competition. Yes sometimes the simplest things make men smile. The third, not seeing a single other Westerner for the day but the Chinese swarmed over the river town in droves.
Chinese McMuffins, only good for you.
Up before sunrise bundled into a taxi and onto a train station which will take us to Yichang about seven hours away. Intrepid tours have chosen bottom bunk sleeper class for the day, fine except others have slept in them before our stop, some are still asleep above. We are met by the waft of feral boys snoozing, a mix of body odour, stinky sox and last night’s dinner, a rather potent mix. My nostrils twitch. The train pulls out and I try to combat the lack of head room in the six berth cabin by half sitting half slouching against the wall and watch China wake for another day. One city after another flashes past with barely a break of countryside between.
This luxury ship was our home on the Yangzi river.
Mid afternoon we are at the Yangzi river and Yichang, we while away the hours in a modern shopping mall getting a fix of caffeine before our boat leaves. The Chinese charge 30 yuan a cup for coffee, it’s Western and foreign for these big tea drinkers, you pay dearly for being different. The boat is not what we expect, all have believed we would be on a rusty hulk heading to the scrap heap at the end of our journey four days upriver in Chengdu. How wrong as we are led from one boat to another at the port. “Is this ours ?” Cries someone. “No”replies the guide, of course not, I think it’s too swish. But for once I am proved wrong as I stand in the marble foyer of our boat amongst the rigid Chinese crew all eager to please, if only they could understand my demands ! The boat/ship (I don’t know the difference but I hope both float) is six stories high with a marble staircase and is only two years old. They can’t take the smiles off our faces….
Each morning the river guide, Mini, purrs into the microphone asking us to rise and head to Level 5 for morning coffee and details of the day. A series of tours take us up tributaries, to pagodas and an extensive tour of the Three Gorges dam. The dam is amazing in its magnitude, it took about ten years to complete by 2003 with a workforce of forty thousand. The dam holds monstrous amounts of water used for hydro electricity to support the local population for a one thousand kms radius and drinking water for a similar area. The first night we stand on the deck as our boat is lifted through a series of five massive locks up into the dam that takes a few hours. Meanwhile close by the Chinese are building a lift due to open in 2015 which will pick up 3000t boats in a box 280m long and lift them 113m in 30 minutes from the river below to the dam level above ! Show offs….
Lifting the ships through the five locks
Hard to appreciate the scale of these giant lock gates on the Three Gorges dam.
Along the way we have seen huge new cities built to accommodate the 1.3 million people displaced by the dam’s flooding of their original homes. The young have left these new towns absent of work for the big cities leaving their parents and grandparents in improved but unfamiliar apartments. Our boat plies its way West against the current of the famous Yangzi river, centuries of its history now many, many metres below the surface.
The Canadians, Gina, Sally and myself.
The comfort of floating along on the Yangzi river lulled me into a false sense of reality. To the point where I grasped the microphone in the boat’s bar last night and belted out a song, reading the pulsing words and dated video on a screen…. I plead cheap Chinese beer ! Don’t worry, everyone had left the ships bar except our group and our Chinese guide, Gina. She was too polite to use it against me the following morning as we stride the gangplank into Chong Qing and its 29 million residents. A city I didnt know existed but with more people than the whole of Australia !
It’s a transit point for the train to Chengdu, and a highlight for all China visitors, the Giant Panda research complex. We arrive early when the pandas are eating their bamboo shoots. Evidently they spend most of their time asleep and probably the main reason they do not produce offspring in any number sufficient to keep their specie going. We’ve all heard it “Go away I’m too tired.” They are a loveable animal and I evidently ruin the tour by telling the others that I just saw one unzipping his costume and having a fag. This complex is China’s chance to show the world it can save an endangered animal from extinction.
I saw the guy unzip his costume and have a fag…..
A day later we jostle our way to the Chengdu airport and a few hours later we are in Shanghai. The drive into the city is an alien and grim feeling in a murky haze, the eternal ridge profile on the horizon is all concrete, the residential towers stretch forever. If someone told me this was the start of the end of the world I’d be a believer. If this is where the world is heading…..hmm.
Shanghai is also our first sighting of large numbers of Westerners again. This is the entry point for most Western businesses. The local people are far more accustomed to our big noses and our hair which surprise, surprise is not always black. Our walk to the Bund on Saturday night shakes me, the crowd so dense and steady that we choose to walk on the road and face the risk of scooters instead of the constant crashing of body against body. I lose all of Sunday, a bug hits me and I am bedridden in a dark room my stomach churning, I know I smell and I don’t care. I’m given some antibiotics by Sally courtesy of the Canadians who are travelling with a complete pharmacy. “Take four of these and don’t ask any questions” is the order and an hour later I start to feel wheezy, not sure what is going to happen. I stagger unsteadily to the bathroom, I’m sweatin’ and happy to make it back to the bed without falling. I lay there saturated in sweat but by morning the worst is over although it’s days before I’m 100%.
We spend a morning in the business district after walking through the English Concession. We arrive at the base of the bottle opener yes thats what they call the building ? There is an observation deck 100 floors above the street. It’s the current highest in the world but right next door a twisting metal spire has already shot at least another 25 storeys higher but has yet to open. As high as these towers are, the view from the top is another reminder of the city’s pollution with the vista blurring into a yellowy grey… yuck.
1.4 billion to choose from, of course the gymnastics were going to be unbelievable.
An overnight sleeper to Xian, a better overnight train than our first but both have had clean linen and sufficient comfort to arrive having had some sleep. But you do share, not really a problem considering they are two in a billion. The two girls who arrive to take the top bunks support themselves on each bunk and spring effortlessly into their beds with the flexibility of Shanghai acrobats. They are two in a billion.
Xian is just another mass of people, another journey from an airport on roads with no rules, simply suggestions says our guide. And it looks like it, cars weave, brake and inch ever so carelessly towards their destinations. We enjoy a walk on top of the 600 year old city walls. I expect it to be three or four persons wide not wide enough to drive cars on, it’s huge and 14 kms long, one of our group runs it in heavy pollution and a pea soup fog. I expect him to be sick but he tells me the six-pack he drank afterwards revived him. We visit the Han dynasty tomb found 20 years ago when digging for the airport freeway. It is a complete preparation for the afterlife not unlike the Terracotta Warriors but the figures are only 600mm high.
Xian Bell Tower shimmers in the night.
The following day we head to the Terracotta Warriors. Like most things you’ve been told much about, it still doesn’t prepare you for the magnitude, the precise detail of each warrior, every single one a different face. There are thousands of them, the outer soldiers facing potential enemies, the inner mixture of various warriors all facing East away from the Emperor Qin. Archeologists have worked digging and piecing together the warriors since the tombs were first discovered in 1974 by a farmer digging for water. And to think they believe it was all built for Emporer Qin’s afterlife. If I had been able to convince 760,000 workers to build me a toy army like this I wouldn’t have wanted to leave this life either.
Final train journey today, we are heading North to Beijing on the fast train whipping along at 300 kms/ hour and should be there for dinner. It’s sleek, smooth and only has Western toilets, the country is moving along very quickly. China is racing along at a pace that not many of its people can keep up with, turning farmers into city folk in the click of a finger, the older people are stumbling along. The young caught in the whirl of bright lights, fashion and the promise of wealth push and shove their way to the front of the queue.
We fight the masses from the station into a small bus for our final drive three hours out of Beijing, a small hostel in the hills near a popular section of the Great Wall. Winter has set in and we shiver our way through dinner in our heaviest clothing before making a beeline to our beds. It’s seven pm but it doesn’t matter, we all shiver through a night of zero temperatures with the bizarre added comfort of a corn kernel pillow. It moulds perfectly to your head and holds you in the one spot all night.
“Its just a short climb onto the wall then three hours of easy walking” reports our guide over breakfast. True it is a steep walk onto the wall but the wall itself with steps up to a foot high require full-time concentration. They have us puffing and panting like some ancient Chinese dragon. A mixture of cold, distant fog and an absence of people gives the wall a mystical feel, we are all alone for the first time. A pathetic looking sun fights to heat the earth to two degrees Celsius !
The mystical serpent-like Great wall of China disappears into the fog.
Two days in Beijing, so it was a no brainer that we would all go to the Kung Fu show purely for the cultural experience of course. There’s a bit of story line of tormented love thrown in to keep the females in the audience entertained. But the agility and flexibility of the fighters…wow. Backflips complete with head-plant landings left the whole audience gasping in disbelief. I’ve seen four shows throughout the trip and every one of them has been an extravaganza, no wonder they put on such a great show for the Olympics in 2008. We went out to the ‘Birds Nest’ that bizarre piece of Olympic stadium construction that left the world bewildered. The cube swimming centre next door which would have been better seen at night witrh its lighting show. Tiananmen Square, Mao’s mausoleum, The Forbidden City and The Summer Palace. The Hutongs, the old rabbit warren communal housing with a toilet for the neighbourhood was a fascinating insight into old Beijing and a very different style of living.
Beijing’s been seen through watery eyes, yesterday it was zero and today started at -7c and hasn’t hit positive numbers. Of course there’s an Australian in our group walking about wearing shorts, much to the amusement of the locals. All the evidence they needed to be convinced we are crazy.
Flight home leaves at midnight, nearly four weeks of constant surprises. China is a country I should have known more about,. Let’s be honest, I’ve been eating their food every Friday night since I was at school or a butchered version of it at least. It’s a country on the move, give up your jobs and start learning Chinese, they’re coming whether you like it or not. Just wish they could give up that spitting thing.
It’s been very busy with little time to collect my thoughts. China has been confronting. You see I came to see the sights, check out “The Wall you can see from the moon”, see an army made of terracotta statues built specifically for the afterlife, fall in love with an endangered giant panda, be seduced by the romantic East meets West of Shanghai.
All of these things were on the itinerary but the thing that has rocked me most is the volume of people, every single experience has been affected by the overwhelming crowds. They push, they shove, every man, woman and child will simply and efficiently slip in front of you.They lack any requirement for personal space and this has come about because there is no space and their history was also of communal living. The population explosion has simply accelerated their behaviour. God, imagine if they’d never brought in the one child policy.
So many cities with over ten million people every one of them a construction site,every one of them swollen and chaotic. Their surplus is already spilling into other countries, their food needs are giving distant countries, Australia included, a chance to supply. Even China’s vast fertile land is insufficient to feed their bulging masses.